valve trombone

Also:       trombone à pistons      Ventilposaune      trombone a pistoni      

Title: Herb Ellis & Stuff Smith Together!--Hillcrest (take 5); Bob Enevoldsen, valve trombone. Label: Koch Jazz. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 3-7805-2. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The valve trombone is a lip-reed aerophone of Europe that was disseminated worldwide in the 19th century through European colonialism and through cosmopolitan connections with the Americas. It is a trombone only in its general shape; instead of employing a telescoping slide like a true trombone it is outfitted with valves (either piston or rotary) like trumpets and euphoniums to facilitate pitch selection. It is therefore somewhat of a hybrid instrument within the family of European lip-reed instruments. The rotary-valve trombone pictured and described here is in the tenor range (like a tenor trombone), but historically valve trombones have been made in the bass and alto registers as well. In the 19th century the valve trombone was used in military bands, including horse-mounted cavalry bands, and frequently in orchestras alongside slide trombones. In the 20th century it came to be used in school marching bands and as an auxiliary instrument in the domain of jazz (listen to audio clip). The tenor valve trombone does not possess a repertoire of its own; instead a performer has available to them the considerable repertoire of music composed for the trombone. It is, today, considered an auxiliary instrument that amateur or professional trombonists and euphonium/baritone horn players (and even trumpet players who wish to carry over their facility with valve instruments into a lower register) might own for occasional use, much like trumpet players in America treat the flugelhorn


The valve trombone is an approximately nine-foot length of tubing (which produces a fundamental pitch of B-flat1) with two U-shaped bends. It has a cylindrical bore for most of its length, a flaring bell, and three rotary valves that, when depressed/rotated individually or in combination, add varying lengths of tubing to the instrument’s basic length. It is made in two sections--the valve and bell joints--that are connected with a friction collar. Unlike slide trombones, this valve trombone includes a slight bend in its bell joint just above the connecting collar. The valve section mimics the two long parallel cylindrical tubes connected with a U-bend of a slide trombone in first position. However, unlike on a slide trombone, this initial length of tubing is interrupted just before it connects with the bell joint with a series of three rotor valves. When a valve rotor is unengaged the air column passes directly through a channel bored into the rotor; when the valve is engaged by depressing the rotor key two different channels come into alignment, one directing the air column out of the valve and through an additional length of tubing, and a second one allowing the air column back into and through the valve. The amount of tubing that is added is different with each valve: the first valve, closest to the bell joint, adds enough tubing to lower the pitch of the instrument by a whole step (M2); the second valve by a half step (m2); and the third valve by a minor third (m3). In the detail image the differing lengths of the additional tubing can be seen; from left to right are the first valve tubing, which is approximately twice the length of the tubing added by second valve, and the third-valve tubing length is equivalent to the sum of the lengths of the first two valves combined. The bore of the bell joint begins small at the end that is connected to the slide section and gradually expands until the bell, where it flares dramatically. One cross-stay unifies and strengthens this joint. A detachable silver-plated brass cup mouthpiece is inserted into the available open end of the valve joint (the other open end is connected to the bell joint).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, grasps with their left hand the valve joint near the rotors and with their right hand the other side of the valve joint, placing the first three fingers of the right hand above the rotor buttons and positioning the mouthpiece against their lips. The bell joint rests on their left shoulder with the bell facing forwards. With any given length of tubing, of which there are seven for this three-valve instrument (the basic length and six combinations of additional tubing), the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental of the basic tube length of the valve trombone is B-flat1; the practical range of the instrument is about two-and-one-half octaves from E2 to B-flat4, though some players can extend the upper end of this range. Across this range it is fully chromatic. Production of its pedal tones (E1 - B-flat1) is not dependable and therefore seldom used. Valve trombones are in general non-transposing instruments written at pitch in the bass clef; when playing music originally composed for its very close relative the baritone horn, players will need to know how to read transposed parts in the treble clef that sound a M9 lower than written.


Valve trombones were first produced in the 1820s in Vienna, Austria. They were of great interest to trombone players in the second quarter of the 19th century, but intonation and tone quality issues eventually led most of these performers back to their slide trombones. Only in military band (both marching and cavalry) and pit orchestra contexts, where the space necessary for the operation of the slide trombone was an issue, did the valve trombone’s compactness trump its intonation and sound quality shortcomings. 

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1976. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

________. 1984. “Trombone.” NGDMI v.3: 628-636.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: Austria

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.233.2 aerophone--chromatic labrosone valve trumpet with long air column (more than 2m); the tube is predominantly cylindrical

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: incremental lengthening with valve mechanism of air cavity in which the standing wave is active

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple - changing length of standing wave by adding tube length with valves or slide and by selecting partials through overblowing


42 in. length

Primary Materials



A. M. Botalli, Milan (Italy)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter